Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Individual as an Ensemble

An actor lives to portray a variety of other individuals. Some actors, in live performances, may even "double," or portray more than one person in a single venture. 

Among your favorite actors at the moment is the English performer, Mark Rylance, who, in various roles, has been the female lead of Twelfth Night, a friendly giant in BFM, a filmed version of Roald Dahl's story for young readers, a Russian spy in the film, The Bridge of Sighs,  and Thomas Cromwell, confidante and minister to Henry (Tudor)VIII in Hilary Mantel's epic Wolf Hall.

There have been times when you have wished to undergo the training that might make you an actor, if only to more understand and appreciate the diversity of emotions and techniques that go into acting. On some occasions, you have performed as an actor, the outcome of happy coincidence.

Unless an actor has achieved a significant status, the need to audition for a part is as commonplace as putting on makeup. Some higher authority, a director or producer, must be convinced of the actor's ability to fit a particular role and as well to engage other actors in the same production with a high degree of chemistry, a portmanteau word for the qualities of engagement, spontaneity, and plausibility.

All those times in which you've argued how any individual at any given time becomes in fact a composite of selves, representing a spectrum of emotional and cultural selves, you were well aware of the rather large ensemble cast residing within your person.

This brings you to a place where you experience the same fraught and suspenseful moments when an actor auditions for a part, not just any part, but a desired, coveted one.  

Your own auditions are often conducted without preparation, perhaps even without any thought at all. Nevertheless, there you are, from time to time, wanting to do well, wanting to be the best you possible, wanting to be extended to a quality of performance you've never reached before.

Who, in effect, gets the role? Is it the brash, super confidant seventeen-year-old you? Is it the aspect of yourself you refer to as Built-in Cynic? Is it the Inner Critic, who has fond fault with so many of your ideas and ventures?

Such questions are not mere frivolity or exaggeration; these are questions you ask on occasions of retrospect, where you process the fact that you might have given the role to an aspect of you that got the job done, but now, you wish to bring to events even more appropriate and vigorous characters who will bring confidence, lightheartedness, and empathy to the audition.

Monday, August 29, 2016

End Game

Not long after one of your recent ruminations about the endings you'd encountered in the first wave of books and stories you'd read, which nudged you forward to consider the types of endings you prefer now in the things you read and, not without surprise, the things you write, you came upon a remarkable film clip from a film dating back to the silent days.

In the film clip were two actors you'd known better as performers in the films of your youth, in which there was indeed a sound track. In this particular clip, a young John Barrymore sat disconsolate at a table, ravaged by age and regret, the spirit beginning to lift from him and, thus, signifying how we were observing him at the moment of his death. 

At that moment, his image seemed young, ardent, handsome. Across the room, the spirit of an individual portrayed by Mary Astor. Even when you saw her, in her middle age, as Brigid Shaughnessy, in The Maltese Falcon, she didn't merely radiate beauty and stature, she exuded it.

The two spirits in the film clip before you meet, embrace, seem to melt into one another for a long, poignant moment before they drift off together to eternity, the embodiment--no pun here--of the romantic happy ending and, indeed, one you could see for your parents.

This film clip reminded you of a number of other films in which the ghosts reunite or gather to greet one who has recently crossed over the metaphoric rainbow bridge, separating those of us who live from those who await us "on the other side."

How then could this not remind you of a pair of adverts from Facebook, one in which you are offered the opportunity to buy a commemorative bracelet honoring your furry pals who have preceded you over the rainbow bridge and who surely will greet you on your own venture across that span. The other linked some wind chimes outside a cemetery dedicated to animals. 

You could, by pressing a button, hear the wind chimes which, presumably, would tug at your heart strings to the point where you donated to some animal memorial fund and the almost certain happy ending knowledge that your own friends, Sam, Edward, Blue,Jed, Armand, Molly, Sally, and Goldfarb would gather to greet you on your own venture into the dark hole of eternity.

Happy endings thus assure you of the connective tissue that binds you to those you care for and, even against your contrary beliefs, the prospect of some sense of awareness in which you will experience belonging to the universal elements, their governing forces, and the qualities that govern them.

In the happy-ending movie, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a down-on-her-fortunes widow is forced to a remote cottage, now haunted by the ghost of its former-but-still-irascible owner, a one-time captain of a merchant vessel. The ghost and the widow not only meet, the ghost dictates his memoirs to the widow, who publishes them, earns enough royalty to get by and raise her children in comfort. When the widow's time to cross the bridge arrives, who is there, waiting for her? And of course they stroll off to their destiny hand in hand. No sex in the other world, but jolly good company.

Unless there is some unaccountable traumatic event in the immediate future, you see no Rainbow Bridge beckoning you, which condition may, with proper deliberation, provide a story for you. At the moment, your own preferences for endings are neither happy nor laden with the heavy blankets of noir, rather then of some irony in which:

1. An individual whom you will portray as a loner yet by no means a misanthrope, is led by circumstances to a maze garden, becomes lost, attempts to peer through a hedge for some directional clue, only to meet the inquiring eyes of another being.

2. An individual who voluntarily opts into an assisted-living facility the, in the act of sorting out his few remaining belongings, discovers a box of correspondence from the former occupant, all letters unsent over the years, addressed to him.

3. An individual every bit as convinced as you about any activity subsequent to the individual's death, awakening as if from a dream, finding himself in what appears to be a park, a park with a name such as Bridgeway, persistently followed by a dog of the breed and sort you find least attractive, bearing a collar with a name tag of the sort you would never give a dog, and with an ID on the collar listing you and your last address as its owner and place of residence.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Cut to the Chase

At one time in your childhood in the greater Los Angeles area, there were at least three movie theaters which bore the name The Hitching Post. The one most convenient for your purposes was the on in the 6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard, which could be achieved by a ten-cent bus ride on either the La Brea or Fairfax Avenue routes.

In time, The Hitching Post in Santa Monica became convenient thanks to the fact of your father having command of what was called The Boulevard Luggage Shop and which actually sold luggage and repaired old steamer trunks as a blind for various activities related to the outcome of horse races or the turn of a card in a wild farrago of a game favored by Fillipino chefs and line cooks.

Clearly The Hitching Post theaters stir the gumbo of nostalgia; look at how you place them, roughly between the years of 1940 and 1950, where the menu, as the title suggested, was Western movies in a steady stream. 

You could--and did--enter when the theaters opened at ten of a morning, and could remain all day, confident you'd be seeing different films, with no repetitions.

Of course they were awful, but they were Westerns, each of which had an element that prompted this memory in the first place.  What's a Western film without a chase? Hence the expression, "Cut to the chase," or, "Get on with the reason we're here."

Another similar expression, which has no such glamorous association as The Hitching Post Theaters, is an equivalent of "Cut to the chase," in this case as "the bottom line," as in "What's the bottom line?" or "How much is it going to cost?" and with even greater effect, "How much is it going to cost me?" usually asked of one or more of his children by a father.

The chase in the Western movie was a posse of good guys, in pursuit of a gang or bad guys. The bottom line, as it referred to cost or the final, crucial decision, means an acknowledgment of what issues or matters are at stake in this immediate transaction.

Both the chase and bottom line have reference to story, which always has a pursuit of some sort and a reckoning, a price to be paid or a prize to be won. Life is not nearly so clear because life is filled with a plethora of details and diversions unrelated to the task at hand. 

The moment we begin to consider story, we begin the drudgery of editing out the details and elements connecting the characters and their agendas. One question you're fond of asking yourself, when times come to revise something you're working on, or to students when you're teaching lit courses or to writers when you're teaching writing classes: Can this story do without this detail? Is this scene vital to the story or is it a red herring?

A significant reason for the popularity of story is the bottom line of there always being a chase and some price to be paid.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

To What End

In the warp and weft of your non-reading and writing lives, which is to say the greater universe of reality, you tend to regard a given outcome as the completion of an event, a task, perhaps even a life cycle. To these completions, you often attach a degree of feeling and consideration in what seems to you a commensurate degree of regard. 

Will you, for instance, feel pangs of regret for the last batch of asters and iris you discarded this past Sunday? Not likely because your Sunday trip to the grocer allowed you to replace those now sagging flowers with more vibrant avatars.

And so, as Kurt Vonnegut was so fond of saying, it goes. You light those memorial candles from the culture into which you were born (the yahrzeit or year anniversary of a death) for both parents, a sister, and a wife, doing so with a nod to the culture but a greater nod to the individuals. 

You would not be excommunicated nor reinvested into your birth culture, were you not to light such memorial candles, thus the argument that your rituals are more for you and the individual loads of grief you carry for each individual.

You also light candles for three remarkable companions along what Dante Alagheri referred to in metaphor as the road of life, Sam, Molly, and Sally, respectively a shorthair domestic cat, a multicultural dog, and a half-Australian Cattle Dog, half Australian shepherd, actual rituals to supplement the thoughts you carry of each.

Such behavior distinguishes you, distinctions you have come to understand you require to the same degree you are reminded of your six-foot-three-inch height, your dominant right-handedness, and the facts of your bionic nature, wherein you have neither hip you were born with nor, indeed, neither lens of each eye, nor, in fact the bladder.

These replacements are accommodations and outcomes; you did not on the spur of the moment, decide to have your hips or lenses or bladder replaced. Having sufficient time to learn and insure yourself to the probable outcomes of the greater universe of reality into which you were born, you learned to maneuver and adjust to the laws of observable and, on great occasion, unobservable probability.

The stories you read and write have a collateral set of outcomes, most of which you are able to chose as a matter of preference, but also from the same sort of observation and accommodations required of you out in the greater universe of reality. 

You are aware of the need for an outcome in a story, in fact feel cheated if a narrative you read does not have one, and within the same equation, you feel discomfited when you cannot see a way out of a narrative you've begun.

You are not so much looking for a happy ending as an instructive one, which, like it or not, is based on your experiences with the GUR, the greater universe of reality. On a number of occasions, you've reached the formula that guides you in your preferences for reading and your own writing--the negotiated settlement with the universe of reality.

Do you want a happy ending? Fuck, no. Happy endings represent to you some attempt on your part to control the entirety of the greater universe of reality, where you have enough to do keeping yourself afloat within it and aware of its many unspeakable beauties which you, nevertheless are at pains to recognize and evoke, both within your life and your work.

Thus your attraction to the noir, the sad humor of reality, the awareness of how, no matter their external attractive colors and splotchy bold patterns, the goddamned pears at Gelson's Market are always a disappointment from the first bite.

Endings reflect individual nature. Who ever heard of lighting a yahrzeit candle for a cat or dog? You know with a noir-like certainty that the pears at Gelson's Market have not seen the last of you. Endings reflect the you, trying to effect an outcome in a greater world of reality that does not give a rat's ass because it is too busy being itself.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Bias of Opinion

Reporters gain their stature as insightful, reliable presenters of data and events, their reputations often based on how effective they are at conveying relevant, illuminating information. Narrators often create a likeness or approximation of events and their related data, at times inventing their production from the whole cloth of imagination.

The difference between the reporter and the narrator: each strives for a defining result. The reporter's result is accurate description of place and circumstances, the narrator's result is a plausible evocation of time, place, and the feelings of those involved.

The more the narrator strives, the less general and more biased and circumstantial the narration, The reporter, if successful, achieves approximation of descriptive objectivity by providing a few glimpses off witnessed detail. 

In the former case, the narrator, striving for that state often described as simulacrum or approximation, begins to reach for details he or she finds to have some personal resonance. This brings into play a risk of botched metaphor in the form of one of your most favored lines of poetry, the third line from John Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes," The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass.

The reporter is showing us how the evening was so cold, the hare was limping and trembling while making its way through the grass. The narrator will already have blown breath on his own hands to warm them while writing of the hare's journey out and about in the chill of that night. 

A line out of context from a poem becomes a report, but the opening stanzas of the poem give us the full narrative effect of the chilly night of which Keats wrote and the context as well as the temperature for the drama that was to come.

You could argue away some between-the-drinks conversation with the opening line to Dashiell Hammett's short story, "They Can only Hang You Once," which puts this information on the table:

"Sam Spade said, 'My name is Ronald Ames.' "

Report, narrative, or a mash-up of both? The first thing we learn about the character is a deliberate lie. If we already know who Sam Spade is, we are all the more intrigued by the immediacy of the subterfuge. Spade is working on a case, right?  Subtext, deception, and hidden agenda are tools in the narrator's toolkit.

At one time in your life, when you saw yourself as a reporter, you were alert for the vocabulary and proper filters to insure your descriptions would illuminate, but even as your interests in reporting grew, you found yourself eager to express the bias of opinion and, by fancy footwork and triangulation, attitude.

If the sort of objectivity called for in journalism represented Reality, then you wanted none of it or, at best, only enough to inform you of the events and attitudes thrumming about you, so that you could braid them into realities of their own. 

The difference between what you were reaching for and what you saw yourself in the process of becoming was the difference between the descriptive focus of the reporter and the evocative flair of narration. One does not tell in narration, one chooses events, details, and responses which convey the ashes and embers of fires that once raged.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Queer Fish and Chewing Gum

Your fascination for the work of F. Scott.Fitzgerald began while you were still in your teens, leading you, step-by-step, through his work in hopes of finding, beyond mere enjoyment of his stories, a plank in the platform of your own ventures into storytelling.

In addition to the enjoyment and absorbed sense of placement in his world of writing and the individuals about whom he wrote, you came upon one unforgettable statement and its unforgettable effect on you each time you create a character of your own. 

The matter of influence does not rest there; the statement manifests itself, almost like the ghost of Hamlet the Elder as it appears before the presence of young prince Hamlet, who, if you do some reckoning and shrewd questioning of Prince Hamlet's conversations with Horatio and the gravedigger, was about the age you were when you found Fitzgerald.

You've written of this material before, often with the precise goal of taking something more away from your considerations. The material begins the longish short story, "The Rich Boy;" it reminds you of the Waltham pocket watch that was once your father's, given you, he said, because he wanted to leave you with something old, serviceable, and reliable. You take out the wind-up Waltham to look at and be reminded of Jake in much the same way you consult this opening of "The Rich Boy:"

Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves. 

Your takeaway from this is a near compulsive effort to build an individuality about whatever character you bring on stage, even he or she who delivers minimal lines. You once caught yourself, in a classroom, having moments before telling--imploring--a student: "Even if the characters is only there to tell us 'The Redcoats are coming,' I want to know that character's accents, background, and motives."

In your own writing, your editing, and your teaching, the character is propelled not only by agenda but as well by the details of how he or she came into the story in the first place, got sight of the Redcoats, and what, if any, connections he or she has/had with the Redcoats.

This is the product of a long, painful education in which the characters of any book ever published seemed more alive and alert to the vicissitudes of the human condition than your characters, the characters of writers you admired having yet more wrappings of individuality and presence than your own.

Although painful to admit, you did not always like your characters, thus there was no surprise in the discovery that there were times when you did not always like yourself, your own details seeming to you at those time like the contortions you went through on those times you'd stepped in or come in contact with a wad of chewing gum and were at some pains to be rid of the encounter.

The details of which you speak are only minimally those of physical description, red hair, liver-spotted hands, lantern jaw. These details are the things and ties by which an individual is linked to the landscape of your narrative. How did they get here, or there? Whom did they know? What things do they like or abhor? How does their particularity get them into trouble or speak to their reliability as witnesses.

Even so-called walk-on characters, those warning the front-rank characters of the imminent arrival of the Redcoats, are there to add to the flux and confusion of the story. They, too, step in unanticipated wads of chewing gum.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It's a Mystery to Me

In keeping with yesterday's observation of how the greater likelihood of you being hit by things excludes such phenomena as meteors, rogue Uber vehicles, and unattended skateboards in favor of ideas, and concepts, you're further driven to conclude how such ideas and concepts are connected to that greatest of all enigmas, the mystery.

You consume novels shelved under the heading of mystery to the same degree persons you know consume M and Ms, your tastes in nonfiction running toward speculations or explanations of problems plaguing humanity and of topics where some aspect of humanity or the physical plane upon which humanity finds itself lodged tweak your curiosity to the point where you wish to have their workings unfolded. 

Thus your enjoyment of a process in which a matter presents itself to you as a mystery, offers some clues (not all of which are reliable), then challenges you to investigate with enough dilligence to provide some solution for yourself. 

Most processes of interest to you tick along at their own reliable pace, your understanding of them of no consequence to them, yet of monumental importance to you. Your understanding of the various processes with which you are confronted help you become the you of your fondest youthful dreams and aspirations as well as the you of whom you've been at some pains to improve these last several years. 

You engage this self-editing with a growing sense of responsibility to the extraordinary good fortune of having been born to the surroundings and conditions in which you now find yourself.

Your resume includes the various occupations and interests associated with writers who, from the necessity of making a living and the coeval necessity of curiosity pursued interests in such fields as philosophy, music, anthropology, physics, education, and marketing, not to forget a summer of being a housepainter's apprentice, a solderer of telephone line connections, a delivery person for a butcher, a box boy at a supermarket, and a dogsbody for an auctioneer. 

All this was grist for the mill of having things to write and think about in your urgent wish to become a writer and, then, to see proof and validation of your wishes come-to-life.

Mystery represents to you the questions of how, what if, why not, and how about. You come upon things, yourself included, with one or more of those questions, tugging at your sleeves for attention, then pestering you until you seek, then find satisfactory answers.  

For days, weeks, sometimes even years, these satisfactory answers remain satisfactory--until you are hit with ideas, concepts, and questions that cause you to begin the process of reexamining your previously held satisfactory answers. In metaphor, this process is reexamining yourself much as you reread a favored novel, poetry collection, or transformative work of inquiry known as nonfiction.

Some days, you doubt you will ever solve the one mystery you feel you must solve before you can take on the daunting task of solving such others as appear before you in dreams, in dreamless sleep, and waking hours--the mystery of you.  

Some days, when you are hit by ideas, questions, and concepts, you feel as though you've done the equivalent of moving from a large city, say Los Angeles, driven to a remote corner of desert, then stood to regard the night sky, filled with the same sense of awe and wonder you felt that memorable day you first entered the Powell Library as an undergraduate at UCLA.